What happened when I didn’t exercise for 8 weeks

Back in 2015 I broke my left arm at the elbow mountain biking. This meant I was in a sling for 6 weeks and unable to do any strenuous exercise for over 2 months in total. Even when I returned to exercise it wasn’t easy as my arm had severely restricted movement. I was unable to straighten the arm or fully flex. 

As you can see from the below photos I lost a considerable amount of movement. I couldn’t get my arm any straight or touch my shoulder as the pictures show.

The big question is though what happened to my body after 8 weeks of not exercising? Bearing in mind I’ve never had a break off for that long in over 5 years.

Well, my weight stayed exactly the same, but as the pictures clearly show I lost muscle and gained fat. I lost over an inch off my left arm, going from 14.75 inches down to 13.5 and just under an inch on my right, going from 14.75 to 14 inches.

I also lost muscle from around my chest and shoulders and gained some abdominal fat.

To some people, it might seem like I’m stating the obvious here. I stopped exercising and lost muscle. But the big lesson here is my weight didn’t actually change at all, yet I managed to gain body-fat.

This makes it seem like my muscle turned into fat. If I didn’t know how physiology work I’d agree.

However, the reason I gained body-fat is that I stopped weight training, and lost muscle. It didn’t turn into fat, that is no more possible than lead turning into gold. My body simply used my muscle as energy and stored the food I ate as fat, I became catabolic.

That’s because muscle is a good source of energy and if you don’t perform some kind of resistance exercise such as weight training you will burn it for fuel. Our primary storage system is fat and our bodies are still programmed to make us as fat as possible with minimal muscle.

Our bodies do this because if food ever becomes scarce as it would of for most of the human existence having more muscle is a disadvantage. Why?

Muscle requires lots energy to maintain it. Fat requires very little, therefore if we need to survive on minimal food, lots of body-fat and minimal muscle will help us survive for longer.

This is also why so many people never get lean and muscular, they go about it backwards.

Most people would assume if you want to lose weight and get lean you should eat less and do more exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise such as running, cycling etc..

However, in many respects, it is this opposite. During my forced break from exercise, I definitely ate less. My appetite reduced as I went from about approximately 6-10 hours of exercise a week to zero.

Yet because I stopped weight training I got fatter. To get lean again I simply started weight training again and ate a bit more food to help me recover from exercise.

Doing this forced my body to build muscle. Once I started to build muscle, much of the food I ate was used during this process, meaning I actually got leaner again.

The above diagram helps give a good visual representation. On the left is weight-loss without exercise. A smaller version of yourself, but still soft with fat. On the right is weight-loss with exercise, specifically weight training. A lean muscular version of yourself that can only be achieved if you are doing the right type of exercise.

To summarise unlike what people often say, getting lean is not all about diet. In fact, without the right exercise program, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever look really toned and lean.

In fact if you want to start getting leaner, weight training might well be the best thing you can do. Oh and don’t worry I managed to get back into shape and even grow a beard and lots of hair since breaking my arm as the new current picture of me shows.  I actually got bigger and leaner using nothing but body-weight exercise during my 2-year gymnastics strength training experiment, but that’s a post for another day.

December 2017